Argyris Theory Explained

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Chris Argyris developed a theory about organization learning and how that can impact the effectiveness, adaptability, and growth of a business. He theorizes that different forms of learning, combined with varying levels of maturity, combine with the processes of organizational communication to create positive and negative impacts for the business.

There are three specific areas of impact that effect employees: motivation, empowerment, and accountability.

Why Is the Argyris Theory So Different?

Unlike other management theories, Argyris proposes that businesses have been taking the wrong approach. Many companies use single-loop learning, which tends to solve a problem based on the symptoms being seen instead of addressing the root cause of an issue. That, Argyris argues, makes the company less effective from a personnel standpoint.

Open communication from within an organization is also viewed as a negative in the Argyris theory. He notes that open communication can hinder progress and block learning in certain circumstances. If communication is defensive in some way, refuses to acknowledge core problems, or establishes an inability to tackle a tough issue, then it becomes problematic for business growth.

Negative communication from a company creates a refusal within an employee to acknowledge their own contribution to the problem and the negative attitude which may be fostering it.

As for employee empowerment, Argyris suggests that a successful outcome can only occur when the C-Suite and team managers provide an opportunity for growth that is similar to the same areas in which children mature.

What It Takes to Move from Immaturity to Maturity

Some children seem to be wiser than their years, behaving as adults sometimes before they reach the age of 13. Then there are the children that still act like they did when they were 10, but they just celebrated their 30th birthday.

The reason why there is such a gap of maturity between these two examples is that Argyris views maturity in his theory as a continuum. There are 7 steps that he notes are important for children to grow into mature adults and it is these same steps that are suggested for businesses that wish to empower their employees.

1. Move from passivity into activity.
2. Move from dependence into independence.
3. Move from having few behaviors to having many behaviors.
4. Move from having shallow interests to having deep interests.
5. Move from a short-term perspective toward a long-term perspective.
6. Move from a role of subordination to a role that is, at minimum, equal – if not superior.
7. Move from having no self-awareness toward being in self-control.

Argyris suggests in his management theory that it is up to the managers in an organization to encourage this movement in their employees. The easiest way to do so, he suggests, is to treat direct reports in a positive way. To treat team members as if they are responsible adults. Workers who are mature and responsible seek out additional tasks and responsibilities, which increases production levels.

Why Do Businesses Avoid Using the Argyris Theory?

Like many important issues that face humanity today, the reason why the Argyris theory is often ignored is basic self-preservation. Managers avoid empowering their direct reports because that feels like a method of job security. Employees don’t bother with movement on the maturity spectrum because they can’t risk losing their paycheck.

The C-Suite doesn’t implement the ideas from this theory because it would expose their own self-doubts about certain ideas. That uncertainty would create stress within the working force and that would decrease productivity.

What is the solution? After all, human nature is built around the concept of avoiding death for another day.

Argyris suggests that businesses implement policies that allow workers to achieve intended and observable consequences. Although it takes everyone outside of their comfort zones, double-loop learning is encouraged so that important questions can be answered. People become uncomfortable, but over time, the defensive norms begin to minimize.

Instead of dealing with a lack of trust, a desire to avoid risk, and conformity, organizations can begin to promote more freedom of choice. They can create more internal commitment and loyalty within each worker. It can even encourage mature workers to take more risks because they believe they will be supported by their managers and the organization.

That doesn’t mean every worker will respond in a positive way. Some workers may leave when this theory is implemented. That places more responsibility onto the other workers, yet productivity tends to rise. It’s not about becoming lean and mean. The Argyris theory is about ensuring the wheat is separated from the chaff.